Leadership Lessons from Holding a Flashlight
Many of you can relate to this picture. I certainly can. I spent many hours of my childhood helping my dad fix the car, repair broken appliances, and assemble furniture. My job was to hold the flashlight, fetch a screwdriver, and otherwise assist in the effort. I use the word, “assist” in the most liberal sense possible. At the time I was oblivious, but now I know the truth.
I distinctly remember finishing many projects that Dad and I worked on together. I got to share in the sense of accomplishment because I “helped.”
Fast forward 30+ years, and as a father of four, I’m on the other side of this arrangement. After a long day of work, I often pivot to my list of things that need to be fixed around the house. I wouldn’t consider myself a handyman, but I do the best I can.
My home projects are often filled with frustration. I prefer to do it all by myself for two reasons: Firstly, I can work a lot faster by myself. My kids slow me down. If I need light and don’t have an extra hand, I can always don a headlamp. Secondly, when I work on a frustrating home project, I’m not my best. I’d rather not expose my kids to my plumbing leak-induced tantrum. It’s not pretty.
Yet, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a whole lot better when I involve one of my kids in my home projects.
Yes, it slows me down, but in a good way. I take the time to explain what I’m doing. I have a reason to stop for an ice cream cone after the 4th run to the hardware store when I have a little buddy with me. I moderate my emotions when I experience setbacks because little eyes are watching.
My third son, Josiah, is my Ikea buddy. We’ve built a whole lot of furniture with an allen wrench. I recently watched him fill with pride when he announced to his mom, “Dad and I finished building your desk. Come take a look!”
How does all of this apply to leadership in a professional context? There’s a lesson here, but it may not be what you are thinking. In professional leadership, we often talk about coaching and mentoring. Those are great concepts and practices. I’ve written extensively on those topics and they are important for every leader, but this “hold the flashlight” concept is something different altogether.
The skill gap between parent and child is immense. While holding a flashlight for my dad while he was fixing the car, I didn’t absorb much knowledge. It’s not as if the next time the car broke, my dad told me to go fix it myself because he showed me how. That didn’t happen. Similarly, even though my 10-year-old son, Josiah, has built many Ikea furnishings with me, I do not expect that he’d be able to build a desk by himself at this point.
So, if it’s not about skills transfer, what is it all about? It’s a long-term investment in several things:
I learned how to be a dad, by watching my dad. I learned that dads are supposed to fix stuff after work, take care of their household, and involve their kids in the process. Because it was modeled to me, I carry it on, and my kids will with their kids.
My department at work has a lot of people in it and several layers of management. I work most closely with those that directly report to me. However, all of the individual contributors on my team watch my behavior and it signals to them what leadership is supposed to look like (good or bad). They are always watching.
If my early-career team members later advance to the executive ranks, 20 years from now, my behavior now will inevitably influence how they behave as leaders then. There’s pressure there, but it’s good. I’m a better leader because I know they are watching.
I know this is true because I distinctly remember the leaders in my early career. They were many layers above me. I rarely interacted with them directly, but they certainly shaped how I lead today. I shared an example of this in my very first Zach on Leadership article.
My dad invested time with me because I’m his son. I invest in my kids because they are my sons and daughter. Parents don’t get much utility value out of this “hold the flashlight” investment. The motivation is relational.
In the world of work, we are very task-oriented. Often, even the relationships we invest in support a task-oriented end goal.
I try to make a point to develop relationships with people just for the sake of helping, or simply getting to know them. I do this with people across my company, outside my company, and even students. Not every relationship develops fully, but many do.
It’s impossible to know on the outset, which relationships will be fruitful, but there is one thing I know for certain: I’m glad I have many friends and acquaintances in both my personal and professional life.
Isolation is the enemy of leadership. Make sure you invest in relationships, even in those that have nothing to offer you, other than holding a flashlight.
Those are my leadership lessons on this topic. Whether you realize it or not, many are watching you. Be intentional. Ask someone to hold your flashlight from time to time. It’ll make you a better leader and it will help them out a long way down the road.